Did Anyone "Invent" Science Fiction?
Quick thoughts on the impossible-to-pin-down nature of genres.
For the last few days, my timeline has been filled with angry reactions to a tweet. (Shocking, I know.) In this case, it was sparked by a dubious claim by the NYT that H.G. Wells “invented the genre of science fiction” along with Verne and Gernsback. As you can see from the ratio below, thousands of people mocking the tweet with most of them declaring that everyone knows Mary Shelley—who wrote Frankenstein before Wells was born—“invented science fiction.”
Frankenstein is one of the great English language novels and a fine enough point to pick as the start of science fiction. At least if you have to choose one. (I love it and am actually wearing a Frankenstein shirt as I type this.) But while I think most of the tweeters were expressing anger at the erasure of a famous woman author (and fair enough), it got me thinking about one of my pet topics: how genres are formed and defined.
Because despite the confident claims, Shelley wasn’t the first author—or even the first woman author—to write what me might consider science fiction.
Many scholars of science fiction might declare, as Brian Aldiss did, that Frankenstein in 1818 is “the first seminal work” which we can call SF. Seminal is a qualitative not chronological. And debating between authors like Wells and Shelley probably exposes a Anglosphere bias. Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s 1771 novel L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fut jamais (translated for some reason with some years added as Memoirs of the Year 2500), which describes a future Paris when science reigns, seems like a candidate for the label. So do many other 18-century works from various countries that we might also call satires or utopias, even Gulliver’s Travels. But elements of science fiction can be found earlier than that too.
In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World that imagines an alien planet with fantastical creatures—you can travel there by North Pole portal—while critiquing her own society’s views on science, gender, and politics. From the Broadview Press description:
The Empress is leader of a dreamlike utopian world reachable through the North Pole, filled with talking animals and intelligent hybrid creatures. She establishes a royal society of scientists, initiates learned conferences, interrogates existing knowledge, and spends her days speculating on natural philosophy. She also forms a lively intellectual collaboration with the “Duchess of Newcastle,” a female character summoned from Earth….Blazing World is the first science-fiction novel known to have been written and published by a woman, and represents a pioneering female scientific utopia.
And we can go back further and further. There are arguably science fiction tales in One Thousand and One Nights, composed thousands of years before these examples. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is famously a template for the mad scientist trope. Can’t we call ancient Greek myths featuring scientists like Daedalus and their wild inventions “science fiction”?
At this point, people try to get into rigidly parsing definitions. Is science fiction a philosophical genre using other worlds and technologies to critique our own? Or does it require “plausible” science? Hell does science fiction even have to involve any kind of science at all? Perhaps not, given that post apocalyptic works like The Road—which is basically set in the present after a purposefully undefined apocalyptic event—and alternative histories are frequently grouped in the genre.
This kind of debate is hardly unique to science fiction. The history of horror fiction or science fiction or romance fiction or crime fiction or [insert anything you like] is just as diffuse and the definitions just as impossible to pin down.
If you read this newsletter you probably know I think any attempts to “scientifically” (so to speak) define genres is doomed to failure. Genres are not fixed categories with clear definitions. They aren’t the elements of the Periodic Table that we can identify with precise measurements. Instead they are shifting, amorphous groupings of ideas, authors, influences, and tropes. There’s always an earlier precedent. Always another influence.
I think it makes more sense to think of genres as akin to something like cuisines. Genres are literary traditions with lots of variation and influences that get codify in different times and places. (Contrary to what a lot of Americans seem to assume, other cultures have different genre labels and boundaries.) And like cuisines they are always changing and there is always border territory where different cuisines mingle. And then they can always be combined into new flavors and creations. “Is Frankenstein science fiction, Gothic, or horror?” seems like the wrong question. It’s clearly all three.
Certain flavors, ingredients, and cooking methods get associated with certain cuisines over time. Maybe an ingredient is native to that region, but then again maybe not. What would Italian food be without the imported tomato? In the same way, certain tropes, structures, and elements get associated with different genres. Some fantastical monsters based in mythology have become associated with “horror” (e.g., werewolves and vampires) while others are associated with “fantasy” (e.g., dragons and elves). If I write a werewolf story, it will likely get called horror even if it the story isn’t very scary. If I write one about a dragon, it will likely get called fantasy no matter how terrifying the tale. This makes sense from the literary history—vampires and werewolves are present in seminal horror books like Dracula while dragons have long been a staple of fantasy fiction—but it’s historical not scientific.
Of course, other things make a genre than the content of the works in question. Modern genres are—yes—marketing labels but also entire literary ecosystems with their own awards, imprints, readerships, and so on. If we want to be generous to the NYT tweet, this is perhaps what the article meant by Wells, Verne, and the publisher Gernsback inventing science fiction. The article itself doesn’t really expand on the claim. It’s just an aside. (If you don’t know, Gernsback created arguably the first American magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.)
But anyway the point is no one invents a genre as big and complex as science fiction. Instead lots of authors in lots of countries wrote tales with elements that later—with the addition of magazines, publishers, critics, and readers—would codified with the label “science fiction.”
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